Authors: Jeanne Cooney
A Second Helping of Murder and Recipes
A Hot Dish Heaven Mystery
North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.
St. Cloud, Minnesota
Copyright © 2014 Jeanne Cooney
All rights reserved.
Print ISBN: 978-0-87839-718-1
eBook ISBN: 978-0-87839-967-3
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. In other words, the sheriff and deputies in Kittson County are talented and dedicated and, collectively, have a great sense of humor. Right?
First Edition: June 2014
North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.
P.O. Box 451
St. Cloud, MN 56302
Also by Jeanne Cooney:
Hot Dish Heaven: A Murder Mystery with Recipes
This book is dedicated to my children, Elizabeth, Pete, and Jim.
While I hope you always work hard and do your best,
I pray you never take yourselves too seriously.
Table of Contents
Part One: Make Sure Everyone Has Gone through the Buffet Line
A Second Helping of Murder and Recipes
Cast of Characters
—Minneapolis newspaper reporter
—Owner of the Hot Dish Heaven café
—Editor of the local newspaper
Deputy Randy Ryden
—Local sheriff’s deputy
Buddy and Buford Johnson
—Local farmers and Margie’s nephews
Vivian and Vern Olson
—Margie’s sister and her husband
Little Val and Wally
—Vivian and Vern’s daughter and her husband
—Local Catholic priest
Dinky and Biggie Donaldson
(the President)—Local businessman
—Beet truck driver from out of town
—Kennedy city clerk
—Local farm worker
Sheriff Halverson and Deputies Gus, Jarod, and Ed
—Other local law enforcement
swerved to miss
beets that littered the road. It was the end of October, and I was back in the northern Red River Valley, only thirty miles south of the Canadian border. Once again, it was all because of hot dish.
The air was cold, and the wind was strong, howling at me through my car windows. I was driving east along Highway 11, just outside of Drayton, North Dakota, on the Minnesota side of the river. I was headed for Kennedy, the sun riding low on my shoulders. The beets I was attempting to avoid must have fallen off the trucks used to haul them from the fields to the pilers.
Don’t let me fool you with words like “pilers” or even “sugar beets” for that matter. I really don’t know much about either. I’m not a farmer. My name is Emerald Malloy, Emme to my friends. I’m a twenty-six-year-old reporter at the Minneapolis paper. I write for the Food section, although the word “write” may likewise give you the wrong impression. Mostly I compose lead-ins for articles that highlight recipes. But a few months ago, during my first trip to Kennedy, Minnesota, I not only gathered hot dish, Jell-O, and bar recipes for a feature on “church cuisine,” I solved a murder.
It made the front page. I got a piece of the by-line and everything, which should have thrilled me because I thought I wanted to be an investigative reporter, a far more prestigious position than glorified errand girl, my current job. But in the end, I actually ached for the people involved in that terrible crime and felt more than a little guilty for my part in exposing it. Consequently, when my editor explained that the article had earned me a full-time position on the crime beat if I wanted, I told him I’d have to think about it.
So that’s what I’d been doing the last few months. Thinking. And since I can multi-task, I’d also volunteered to return to Kennedy for more recipes from Margie Johnson, the owner of the local café, Hot Dish Heaven. It turned out our readers loved seeing their favorite old-time recipes in print, so we were planning another full-page spread.
When I called Margie to ask if I could visit again, she said, “Ya betcha. Just be careful once ya get off I-29 there. The state highways and county roads are slick with mud and scattered with beets. See, harvest isn’t quite done yet.”
The beets were much larger than I’d expected, although, in truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew sugar beets were used to create an alternative to cane sugar. I also knew they were big business up here, making unassuming millionaires out of many of the Norwegian and Swedish farmers who lived in the area. I just didn’t think they’d look like potatoes on steroids—the beets, not the farmers. Yet they did. Giant potatoes with thick brown skins.
I turned onto County Road 1 as Willie Nelson sang from my CD player, “On the road again. I can’t wait to get on the road again.” I bounced over a few more beets and the large clumps of dirt accompanying them, certain Willie would have changed his tune if actually in the car with me.
Up ahead I spotted what I presumed was a “beet piler.” It was nothing more than massive mounds of sugar beets in an open field, each mound surrounded by heavy equipment. Several trucks piled high with more beets idled in single file nearby, while people rushed around outside a small guard-like shack.
Aside from that activity, all was quiet. The roads were empty, and the flat, treeless fields that stretched to the horizon were barren and windblown. It made for a bleak picture, one that reminded me of something Margie had once said: “This may not be the end of the world, but we sure as heck can see it from here.”
By the time I entered Kennedy, the sky had fallen gray. Outside the Maria Lutheran Church, red and gold leaves blanketed the ground, preparing for the cold winter ahead. A few even scuttled across the road in an apparent but futile attempt to flee the area before the first Arctic blast.
A dirty white pickup truck moved past me in the opposite direction, the driver acknowledging me by briefly raising his index finger from the steering wheel. I nodded in return, bumped across the railroad tracks, and hung a right onto Highway 75, pulling in across from Hot Dish Heaven.
Only two pickups were parked along the highway that also served as Main Street. But the makeshift parking lot next to the grain elevator was crowded with vehicles and men, about five or six of each, constituting quite a gathering in a community of 193 people. I didn’t recognize anyone, but that didn’t surprise me. While after just one visit, I knew more people here than I did in Minneapolis, where I lived a solitary life, I couldn’t expect to be familiar with everyone. Not yet anyway.
I exited the car and leaned forward to touch my toes. Following a six-hour drive, stretching was necessary. I’d stopped only once for the bathroom and refills of gasoline, Diet Coke, and M&Ms. Righting myself, I adjusted my sweater and, with a shiver, wrapped my short corduroy jacket tightly around me, all the while wishing I’d worn a heavier coat.
I hurried across the road. The wind, smelling of dirt and damp leaves, pushed me the entire way. There were few trees around to stop its efforts.
A small white-haired dog sat near the café. As I approached, he edged away. “Don’t be afraid,” I said to the cute little guy in my friendliest voice. He nonetheless scampered down the sidewalk. “Your loss,” I shouted. “I would have offered you treats.” He hesitated, as if he’d heard and understood. He even glimpsed over his little doggy shoulder. But when all was said and done, he continued on.
I opened the heavy metal door to Hot Dish Heaven and peered inside. It looked deserted. I didn’t see anyone. Not even Margie. Although I did hear her singing to the juke box. It was playing Maura O’Connell’s version of “Livin’ in These Troubled Times.”
I knew the song because my parents had been big music fans, particularly folk and country-rock, and I’d continued the tradition. “Brings you down to buy a paper if you read between the lines that no one seems to have the answer to livin’ in these troubled times.” I smiled at the thought of a sad Irish folk song playing in a café owned and primarily frequented by stoic Scandinavians.
Nothing had changed in the place. It was small and dark, the walls covered in plaster and wainscoting and topped with faded advertisements, both professional and handmade. The booths were upholstered in black vinyl, marked by intermittent pieces of duct tape, while the tables in the middle of the floor and the counter up front were framed in chrome and topped with stained Formica.
“Anybody home?” The aroma of hot dish invited recollections of my previous visit and prompted all kinds of emotions. A veritable casserole of feelings, you might say.
“Oh, my goodness!” Margie scurried from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel that ended up flung across her shoulder. “If you aren’t a sight for sore eyes.”
She enveloped me in an embrace so tight I could only manage to mumble, “’ood t’ see ’ou.”
“Now, let me getta look at ya.” She stepped back and scanned me up and down. “Uff-da, you’re still so skinny I bet ya hafta run around in the shower just to get wet.” She grinned. “Otherwise, ya look wonderful. I love your hair, ya know.” She yanked one of my long, orange curls. “As ya might recall, we have very few redheads up here.”
That may have been an exaggeration. I’d never spotted any redheads in the area.
Most of the Scandinavians who called the northern Red River Valley home were tall, with blond hair, blue eyes, and solid builds, much like Margie herself, even if Margie, admittedly in her early sixties, was now more gray than blond. I, on the other hand, was a rarity in these parts. Being Irish and just five-foot-five, with long, curly, carrot-colored hair and emerald-green eyes, I stood out in Kennedy like “a bagpiper at a lutefisk dinner,” as Margie often said.
I thought the world of Margie Johnson. During my previous visit, I’d ended up incapacitated for a few days, and she took care of me. In spite of repeatedly telling her it wasn’t necessary, I loved every minute of it. Having lost my mom at a young age, I guess I craved motherly attention. And since Margie had never married or had children of her own, she must have enjoyed providing it. Throughout those four days, we spent hours visiting and became fast friends, in spite of our age difference. And while I’d often spoken with her on the phone between then and now, it wasn’t the same as seeing her in person.
“You look great,” I told the solid-framed woman in front of me.
She patted the sides of her head, taming the strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail. After that, she tugged on her tee-shirt, which, along with her jeans and sneakers, comprised her work uniform. “Your eyes must be goin’,” she said with a moderate Scandinavian accent. “Kind of strange for someone so young.”
Somehow my smile grew wider, no doubt nearly splitting my face. “Tell me, do you have time to sit and catch up, or are you too busy preparing for the big feast?”
Margie was cooking for the beet banquet her nephews, Buddy and Buford, were hosting that evening in the “middle room,” as the space that bridged the café and the adjacent VFW was known. The meal was to show their appreciation to the people who’d worked for them during the recent harvest. Margie said it was something most of the local farmers did every year.
“Well, I gotta keep cookin’, so why don’t ya come on back to the kitchen, and we’ll talk some there, while ya relax.”
“Okay,” I replied, my nerves oddly contradicting the notion that the rest of my day would be relaxing.
What did they know that I didn’t?